From the classroom to the self-access centre: A chronicle of learner-centred curriculum development

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Lucy Cooker & Michael Torpey

In this article we report on an ongoing project of curriculum development at Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan. We begin by highlighting initial efforts to orient learners to the notion of self-directed learning while working within a classroom-based context. This is followed by an explanation of the way in which a voluntary module of self-access language learning (SALL) can be utilised to provide additional opportunities for learners to develop autonomous learning skills. We consider this module enables learners to take more responsibility for their own learning and encourages them to determine and focus on their own specific needs.


The ongoing curriculum renewal research project at Kanda University of International Studies is driven by a question equally applicable to other institutions engaged in language teaching in Japan: How can we best promote language proficiency development in a foreign language setting where outside exposure to the target language is minimal? In this article we chronicle our responses to this challenge. In doing so, we highlight the centrality of the notions of autonomy and self-directed learning in providing our with learners valuable opportunities to become more engaged in their foreign language learning.

The concepts of autonomy and self-directed learning are not new to, nor restricted to, the domain of language learning. In reviewing the historical background that affected the development of these notions, Gremmo and Riley (1995) point out that since the 1970s autonomy and self-direction have undergone intense scrutiny and debate—and that the ideas associated with these concepts have, at best, significantly enhanced educational practice and, at worst, functioned as banal terminology. A thorough review of these two notions, and the ideas and attitudes subsumed within them, is beyond the scope of this article (see Boud, 1993; Gremmo & Riley, 1995; Holec, 1981; Little, 1991; Littlewood, 1996). It is important, however, to clarify our understanding of the terms autonomy and self-direction as used in our context. Building on Holec (1981) and Littlewood (1996), we define autonomy as the capacity or ability for thinking and acting independently with respect to one's own learning, and self-direction as an approach or way in which that learning is carried out.

These concepts, underpinned by a recognition of the importance of individual differences, prioritise the need for a curriculum in which the learners themselves are taken as the central frame of reference for decision-making with regard to both the content and form of their learning. Undoubtedly, the dramatic growth of CALL (computer-assisted language learning) in the last decade has afforded new opportunities for enabling and encouraging learners to assume more responsibility for their own learning. Notwithstanding, developing and implementing a curriculum of study that embraces the learners' pivotal roles in planning and directing their own learning is a formidable challenge in the Japanese context.

Despite increasing awareness of CLT (communicative language teaching), the majority of students learning a foreign language in Japan have encountered classrooms where more emphasis is placed on the analysis of language than on its communicative use. In such classes the teacher tends to adopt a predominantly transmission mode of instruction. Interaction is typically restricted to sequences, such as IRF—Initiation, Response, Feedback (van Lier, 1996)—which imposes limitations on the roles assumed and language reviewed. These types of language learning experiences help shed light on accounts of passivity and alienation felt in many English proficiency classes by students and the reported difficulties teachers have faced in promoting high levels of interaction in their foreign language classrooms in Japan (Anderson, 1993; Helgeson, 1993). Yet, as Marshall (1997) points out—and as our experience would indicate—the challenges encountered are more likely attributable to the effects of prior learning experience than to any uniform cultural disparity between Eastern and Western pedagogical beliefs about language teaching.

In our experience, any attempts aimed at encouraging students to take charge of their own learning—enabling them to plan their own course of study—need to be gradually and systematically woven into the curriculum. A comprehensive orientation programme is a crucial component, particularly for entering students. Those responsible for developing and teaching such an orientation programme need to be cognizant of, and sensitive to, the learners' prior experiences, particularly in relation to their beliefs concerning teacher/student roles, the nature of language learning and learning in general.

The 1st-Year Basic English Proficiency Course

Upon entering Kanda University, English majors in the 1st-year Basic English Proficiency course are introduced to an orientation programme entitled "Learning How to Learn—A New Way of Learning." This programme aims to sensitise learners to both the attitudinal and behavioural expectations required as they move from an instructional system where the teacher directs all learning and its assessment, to one where learners participate in decisions about their own learning. Among the numerous lessons that make up this five-week unit (classes meet for 90 minutes, four times per week) are activities that focus on the following: everyday classroom language, active learning, learning strategies, teacher-centred versus student-centred approaches, language for discussions, and presentation skills/language. In addition, particular emphasis is placed on activities which aim to provide students with a sense of achievement and personal accountability in their own learning and to help students think about the process of language learning and how to approach it more effectively. Among these types of activities are student achievement and self-assessment checklists, student evaluation/feedback on the unit activities, and student plans for language learning goals and requisite strategies.

Following the orientation unit, students work on a series of 3- or 4-week thematic units organised around topics such as advertising, music, relationships, travel and the environment. With a focus on promoting the principles of interaction, interdependence and individualisation in the language learning process, teachers write most of the materials used in the first year Basic English Proficiency course. A template for a prototypical unit has facilitated the systematic design and development of materials; though it has been revised since its inception in 1996—for example, there is a current emphasis on including more optional activities that learners are required to complete both in and out of class time (Harmon & Rugen, 2002)—the core features have been fundamentally retained. These features, aimed at deconstructing the lockstep management of the classroom, essentially categorise each unit into four stages: 1) an input or content stage in which learners are working cooperatively together in pairs/small groups, assuming responsibility for selecting and working through a range of prepared materials at their own pace; 2) a project/process stage whereby learners collaboratively negotiate the content of their presentation and their respective roles as they prepare for a public performance; 3) the actual performance stage; and 4) a self-assessment and unit evaluation stage where learners assess their participation and performance in collaboration with other learners and the teacher, and give feedback on the materials (Ford & Torpey, 1998).

In this way, our learners are required to actively participate and negotiate meanings in a wide variety of discourse roles not common in most EFL classrooms. At the same time, while requiring learners to use the target language for a wider range of genuinely communicative purposes, the teacher's role has shifted more to an advisory position, in which s/he focuses on facilitating learning and managing the resources and environment accordingly. We support Marshall's view that "by redefining the complementary roles of teacher and learners we have engineered the potential for greater autonomy on the part of learners" (Marshall, 1997, p.39). This perception is in accord with the supposition that language learners are more likely to become independent users of the target language if their classroom experience complements such an approach (Little, 1995).

The Self-Access Learning Centre

In an endeavour to provide learners with a structured environment outside of the classroom to support independent initiatives promoted in the classroom context, and to further autonomous learning among the student population in general, we have recently established a state-of-the-art Self-Access Learning Centre (SALC). In the sections that follow we briefly describe the centre, and then discuss one of the key services that the SALC learning advisors provide—a voluntary module of work closely aligned to the first year Basic English Proficiency course.

The SALC is a large, open space designed specifically for language learning (see Figure 1). There are two main distinctions between the use of the space: group access and individual access. The two access areas are further divided into ten sections for specific purposes (see Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 1. The Layout of the SALC

Figure 2

Figure 2. Group and Individual Access Areas

Each area was specifically designed with three factors in mind: its location within the centre, the furnishings necessary, and the equipment provided. For example, the listening stations are set in a quiet area of the room away from the entrance and consist of a high "bar table" and stools (chosen to minimise space requirements) and an MD player and headphones. The speaking booths, which are soundproof, can seat two people and are located next to a conversation lounge adjacent to the SALC. This layout was considered an effective use of space as the users of the soundproof booths would not be disturbed by the conversations taking place in the lounge. Each booth is equipped with a desk and two chairs, a computer with two headsets, two recording MD Walkmans (one for listening and one for recording) and a mirror to facilitate pronunciation practice.

As for the language learning materials, the SALC houses a large and varied selection of materials (either commercially published or produced in-house by our materials writing team). All these resources are selected and designed/written specifically for self-access language learners, whether these be individuals, pairs or groups. The foreign languages available for study at the SALC include the major languages taught at the university (English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean) and also 12 additional languages.

We are fully aware that the availability of this state-of-the-art centre does not automatically ensure learner autonomy or independence. Thus we strive to offer more than just a facility. Our most valuable resource is in fact our learning advisors who work closely with the learners to provide advice on developing learning strategies, finding ways to use the equipment in the centre, locating appropriate materials, and understanding particularly difficult aspects of language. The learning advisors provide these services within two domains: a drop-in advisory service known as BASIL (Be A Successful Independent Learner) and the SALC Homework Module (SHM).

The SALC Homework Module

The SHM is offered as a non-compulsory self-study module intended to preserve the truly "self-access" nature of the SALC. Rather than making the use of the SALC compulsory, we aim to provide a warm, welcoming ambience to increase intrinsic motivation. The SHM is organised as a 10-week course entitled "Learning How to Learn," complementing the orientation unit mentioned earlier. Learners must complete up to 30 hours of self-study but can do so at anytime and in any place (in the SALC, at home, etc.). The module is worth 20% of credit to be added to the learner's grade for the Basic English Proficiency course. The total grade for this course is therefore calculated as 120% with the extra 20% provided by the SHM. This system rewards the motivated students who use the SALC in a formalised manner, while those students who are not interested in taking the module are not penalised.

When learners first start the SHM, they are required to make a study plan. From then on, they must write a weekly learning diary detailing the study they have done, meet a minimum of twice with a learning advisor, and write a report at the end of the 10-week period evaluating their learning; this report is included in the portfolio of work submitted to the learning advisors upon completion of the module. To support this process, learners are initially given a SHM pack containing templates and completed examples of plans and diaries, and numerous advisory documents on topics such as goal-setting, time-management, choice of learning strategies, and self-assessment. In order to enable learners to achieve a balance of learning activities, the focus/transfer/general (FTG) model (see Figure 3)—developed by Toogood et al. (2002)—was adapted. This model shows learners how to think explicitly about their learning objectives and how to achieve them. The model does not allow learners to receive credit for only doing activities such as watching a video every week. While this activity may satisfy the general practice component, it does not satisfy the focus/transfer requirements of the model.

Figure 3

Figure 3. The FTG Model (adapted from Toogood et al., 2002)

The main responsibility of the learning advisors is to ensure that individuals are effective in their learning. An advisor reads each study plan and provides written feedback, often in the form of questions intended to encourage self-reflection on the part of a learner. The advisor then meets one-on-one with the learner to clarify issues and provide suggestions. During the first few weeks the advisor reads the learner's diaries, again providing written feedback. Subsequent face-to-face meetings are at the discretion of the learner; however, learners are made to understand that they can contact the advisor whenever needed. Finally, the advisor meets the learner for the required final interview. At the end of the module two advisors evaluate the learner's overall performance as detailed in the portfolio of work. This double marking is carried out independently, with reference to four aspects of the learners work: planning of the work, the diaries and work produced each week, the final interview, and the evaluative report.

Given the fact that the SHM is in addition to a pre-existing course, our challenge was to reassure the instructors of the 1st-year English course that this optional, self-study module is assessed fairly. The importance of assessment becomes apparent upon noting that 11 points from the SHM could raise a student's final grade from a C (69%) to an A (80%) without input from the classroom instructor. Initially the learner's work is given a maximum of 5 points in each of the four categories. This gives a raw score out of 20, which represents the extra 20% of the grade of the first year English course. However, not all learners complete the 30 hours of required work. Thus a formula was developed to take this into account. The formula consists of taking the number of hours completed as a percentage of the total required hours. This result is then multiplied by the raw score. We feel that making the adjustment for length of time exposed to the language is pedagogically sound, results in more realistic scores, and allows us to reassure our colleagues that the extra credits are fairly distributed.

The SHM is intended to be a logical continuation of the language study curriculum in that learners come to learn how to plan their own course of work, take responsibility for their learning, discover which learning styles suit them best, and evaluate their own learning. Some of the reflections written by the learners in the final evaluative reports support these suppositions. Frequent comments were "I learned my favourite learning styles" and "This made me study harder. Without this I wouldn't have done much self-study." Other sentiments included "I got a learning habit," "This made me start self-study," and "I needed help like this." Feedback from classroom teachers indicates that those who participated in the SHM became more motivated and were more effective independent language learners. These are of course only perceptions; in order to analyse the full impact of the module on learner development and language proficiency a longitudinal study is in the planning stage, with the proficiency scores of the SHM students to be gathered over time.

Until this study is completed, it is impossible to give conclusive evidence of a positive impact. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to note that a number of the students who completed the SHM 1st semester inquired if they could do it in the 2nd semester. Unfortunately, due to the limited number of learning advisors, this is not possible. However, in coming years we not only hope to be able to offer a SHM with a different focus in the 2nd semester but also to provide this optional programme to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-year students (with skill-specific SHMs attached to the advanced proficiency courses). In this way we hope to expand the opportunities for our learners to become more proficient, life-long learners of English and other languages.


In this article we have described our ongoing efforts to design, develop and implement a curriculum of language study for students of English. In particular we have focused on the 1st year Basic English Proficiency course and the SALC Homework Module to illustrate the importance we place on fostering the capacity of our learners to become autonomous and on conveying to them the opportunities for self-directed learning. We see the classroom and the SALC as linked, complementary features of a language curriculum that recognises and seeks to accommodate the uniqueness of our individual learners. In our continued efforts, we remain wary of the temptation to require our learners to undertake compulsory SALC modules. In line with Dickinson's (1995) research, we have found that increased motivation and achievement result from learners' perceptions that they, rather than others, are responsible for their own learning successes and failures. Such research supports our desire to maintain the truly "self-access" nature of our learning centre.


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Lucy Cooker studied Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and is now working as a Senior Lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan where she established the Self-Access Learning Centre. Her areas of specialization are learner autonomy and self-access language learning. Contact email:

Michael Torpey has lived and taught in Papua New Guinea, Australia, and Germany. He is currently an Associate Professor at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba where he is the Assistant Director of the English Language Institute. He received his Doctorate in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. His interests range from curriculum development - with a focus on individualisation in the learning process - to social organisational psychology. Contact email: